April 9, 2019 Inter Arma – Sulphur English (Album Review)
As a general rule, the more genres a band is purported to cover, the less enjoyable the overall product can be. Luckily, such is not the case with Inter Arma, the Richmond, Virginia quintet whose fourth album, Sulphur English, is due for release Friday, April 12th through Relapse Records.
So who are Inter Arma? Assembled in 2006, 4 grueling years passed until the band released its debut LP, Sundown, but the lost time was quickly erased by the breakneck pace at which the next 3 followed: Sky Burial in 2013, Paradise Gallows in 2016, and now Sulphur English. This album sees the debut of Bassist Andrew Lacour, who joined a year prior to work alongside Vocalist Mike Paparo, Drummer T.J. Childers, and Guitarists Steven Russell and Trey Dalton.
Now, what are Inter Arma? That question is a little more complex. The band mixes the seemingly disparate genres of Sludge, Ambient, Black, and Death while effortlessly weaving in the crisp sadness of the Peaceville Three (Anathema, My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost) who ruled the Doom landscape of the ’90s. Which leads us to Sulphur English, the latest entry in the band’s impressive catalog.
Eight songs in total, following the disturbing Horror movie-like introduction of “Bumgardner,” the brutality of “A Waxen Sea” adapts the mood and progressions of the opening track before delving into effusive sludge. “Citadel” keeps the slow pace with sounds of Morbid Angel circa 2000’s Gateways to Annihilation and 2003’s Heretic, continuing the Sumerian path laid by those two efforts, carefully alluding to the familiar drum-heavy grooves and shrieking guitar solo without aping the sound entirely.
True to its title, “Howling Lands” lays bare a battle march, as if an army of half-rotted corpses is screaming in agony as they drag themselves out of hell (or rather, as the lyrics allude, into hell). Glimpses of clean lyrics, hidden behind effects, deepen the mood when imagined as marching orders.
The centerpiece of the album is “Stillness,” a 9 minute descent into morose melody and pain. Released as a single earlier this year, through Adult Swim and Cartoon Network, the track begins by blending the acoustic outro of “Howling Lands” into the wispy sounds of a barren plain, one inhabited by a lonely voice that soon builds into a chorus. In characteristic fashion, Inter Arma expands to a larger narrative as more instruments take their places; the guitar switches to electric and begins to exude a vibe reminiscent of Rockabilly laced with the odd melancholy of a David Lynch film. As the 6th minute approaches, the sounds fall into crippling anguish, as the vocals emit cries of warm despair that envelop the listener, the guitar solos sewing the pain together before the acoustic returns to dull the pain.
Well-rounded, the album uses the instrumental “Observances of the Path” as a change of pace between the dirge of “Stillness” and the progressive tones of “The Atavist’s Meridian.” This latter track ticks past 12 minutes–making it the longest on the album–and effortlessly invokes the ’90s ambient noise driven by Relapse predecessors Disembowelment, replete with obscure vocals floating under well-miked drums and haunting guitar. Inter Arma are at their strongest building momentum for sonic transition, and this song fulfills that promise as the pace quickens toward the close. It is a welcome transformation from the pain of “Stillness” and the two are easily the best of Sulphur English, though the title-track makes a strong case as the album closes.
Nearing the end, “Blood on the Lupines” is a slow dirge that sees the band applying incredible restraint to keep the vibe heavy while sticking to a glacial pace. The vocals break out into painful screams, but the music keeps a steady pace that barely registers. Lastly, the aforementioned title track bleeds into the political sphere for the first time in the band’s career. Decrying the doublespeak employed by elected officials, searing vocals from Paparo lie over crisp blast beats from Childers. This is all while the guitars and bass form a complex stew of anger that alternates with slow, thoughtful passages eerily reminiscent of the recently reformed Dusk.
The ease with which Inter Arma turns opposite ends of the Heavy Metal spectrum into miscible partners is staggeringly impressive. Their influences and contemporaries may seep through, but these nods are never without an original twist. Almost on a track-by-track basis, the band manages to invoke its control over the entirety of the Metal genre, while keeping the unique vibe that has defined their entire career. A thoroughly exhausting ride, Cryptic Rock gives Sulphur English 4.5 out of 5 stars.